Perhaps you’ve been staring down a bland stretch of lawn for decades, mowing every week or so during the summer. Or maybe you just bought a new construction home, with a tree and some shrubs, but not much else in the way of landscaping.
Even if your home is surrounded by “foundation plantings,” or evergreens or shrubs that disguise the lower half of your exterior walls, a long stretch of the same kind of greenery can be boring. You may yearn to make it more interesting and prettier. But where do you start? Learn six tips for starting your first ornamental garden.
What’s an Ornamental Garden?
Your plantings don’t have to resemble the formal gardens of Versailles to be “ornamental.” Any garden you plant for the primary purpose of creating beauty and aesthetic pleasure is an ornamental garden.
Such gardens can consist of a variety of colorful flowers or can be made up of solely trees and shrubs of different shapes, heights, and species. But don’t sign up for a topiary class any time soon. You can create a garden that enhances your enjoyment of your yard and boosts your home’s curb appeal by starting small and building it slowly.
If you know you want a garden but you’re at a loss about how you want it to look, visit a local botanic garden for inspiration. If there isn’t a botanic garden nearby, look for local garden clubs or garden tours held in the spring and summer.
If none of those are available, start perusing home and garden magazines. Save pictures of gardens you find delightful and make a note of their style and structure. Are they laid out in a formal pattern, or do they have a more relaxed, blowsy, natural look? You’ll find that you’re attracted to the same sort of look repeatedly. Use that as your inspiration.
Sun and Shade
Next, it’s time to decide where on your property you will locate your garden beds. Make a note of sunny and shady areas. Which way does the front of your home face? East-, south-, and west-facing areas will likely get more morning or afternoon sun than north-facing parts of your yard. When you’re observing sun and shade conditions, be mindful of the time of year, as light conditions will be different in early spring and summer than in the fall and winter.
Don’t be discouraged if your yard is shady, as there are many types of shade-loving plants that create lovely color and structure in areas that don’t get a lot of sunshine. Choose a location for your first ornamental garden that sits in a spot where you can see and enjoy it most of the time. Check the view from inside and consider how much time you spend outside in that part of your yard.
Soil and Preparation
Once you’ve chosen a location for your garden, it’s time to do the prep work. If the area is covered with grass, you have a few choices. You can either remove the turf or kill the grass by smothering it. Smothering is the easier choice for new gardeners.
Map out the size and shape of your garden-to-be. Cover the area with newspaper and cardboard, wet it down to hold it in place, and then bury those compostable materials with more organic materials. Use layers of “brown,” like fallen leaves, and “green,” like grass clippings. You can use vegetable scraps as long as they are raw (not cooked in oil), but be aware this can attract wildlife. You may want to fence off your new garden bed while your compostable materials are “cooking” down to create rich, loamy soil.
The best time to create a “lasagna garden” of layers is in the fall, when there are plenty of dead leaves to rake on top of your cardboard and newspaper. But if you don’t want to wait, you can still plant by digging through your layers and setting plants into the ground in the spring.
Learn your agricultural “zone.” The USDA has mapped the country by zones according to the prevalent growing conditions in the area. Your zone will determine the types of plants that can thrive based on the average temperature and rainfall in your location.
Choose a variety of bulbs (usually planted in fall for early spring bloom), flowers, shrubs, and even young flowering trees that won’t grow too tall for your first ornamental garden. Decide if you want to mix decorative “annuals,” plants that bloom for just one season, or “perennials,” flowers that come back and bloom year after year.
Browse catalogs from garden supply companies to get ideas about what types of bulbs, flowers, and shrubs you may want to plant. Consider color and mature height, the amount of space the plants need, their sun and soil requirements, and their bloom time.
You can find most of the plants you like at local garden centers, and you can buy them when they’re already blooming for instant color and appeal. But if you fall in love with an unusual type of rose or flowering shrub, or you need robust shade-loving plants as groundcovers, you can buy live plants for delivery at the proper time to put them in the ground. They may be more expensive, but they’ll have been carefully cultivated and grown to be robust and healthy when they arrive.
Once you’ve chosen the plants you want, mark where you want to put them in your new garden bed. Shorter plants should be toward the front, and plants that grow taller can be located toward the rear as you view the bed from your yard or the street. One effective way to create a beautiful garden is to create groups of the same type of plants, alternating with different plant groups that show a variety of colors and bloom at different times of the season, or all season long.
Don’t wait until your beds are fully prepared for planting to discover that your hose won’t reach that far to water them—or worse, that you don’t have an outdoor faucet anywhere near your garden bed. Determine how you’ll get water to your garden during dry periods before you plant.
For areas prone to drought, consider rain barrels. These collect water that runs off your roof through downspouts and would ordinarily just flow out into your yard to be absorbed into the ground. When the rain is over, the soil will dry out again, which could be a long time in the future. Rain barrels give you a supply of water when rain is scarce, helping keep your garden looking healthy.
Weeds and Mulch
Weeds are the bane of a gardener’s existence, but they can be managed. Opportunistic plants will invade your carefully prepared bed. It’s best to remove weeds as soon as you see them sprouting. A stirrup hoe with a saddle-shaped end is a marvelously effective tool for uprooting weeds and pulling them out.
Discourage weeds with a good layer of mulch. Mulch holds moisture to keep your plants nourished with water and prevents many weeds from sprouting. There will always be seeds of invasive plants and weeds that take hold in your beds and even in the mulch itself, so be prepared for regular garden maintenance. A weekly session of weeding will save you the despair of seeing your lovely garden bed consumed by unwanted and unsightly weeds.
Creating your first ornamental garden is a labor of love. If these tips for creating your first garden send you outside and eager to begin, that’s great! But be realistic—if it all sounds like too much work, you can begin by simply filling some decorative planters and pots with potting soil and some colorful annuals.